The photograph, one of the most requested from the National Archives, has left generations of viewers scratching their heads: President Richard M. Nixon, wearing a gray suit with an American flag pin in his lapel, and Elvis Presley, in velvet bell-bottoms and cape, an enormous gold belt buckle at his waist, shaking hands in the White House.
The product of a warped mind and some Photoshop tomfoolery? No, just another moment when truth is stranger than fiction.
But what, exactly, is that truth? The encounter, which is the subject of the comedy “Elvis & Nixon,” out this weekend, took place on Dec. 21, 1970, when the two men, each teetering on the precipice, met in the Oval Office.
Sometime the night before, Presley, incensed by what he considered the moral decline of America, wrote to Nixon requesting a meeting. Flying a commercial red-eye to Washington from Los Angeles and using American Airlines stationery, Presley said he’d been inspired to save the country from the scourge of the Black Panthers, hippies and Students for a Democratic Society (he would later include the Beatles on that list).
Now he wanted to be made a federal agent at large with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the better to go undercover.
“I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good,” he wrote. “I am glad to help just so long as it is kept very private.”
He delivered the letter to the northwest gate of the White House and went to the Washington Hotel to await an answer.
Presley as an all-American anti-drug activist, what better disguise? (Not incidentally, the entertainer, who had received death threats, believed that the credentials, which he longed to add to his collection of law-enforcement memorabilia, would also allow him to carry firearms, and prescription drugs, at home and abroad.)
The president wouldn’t install his infamous taping system until the following February, leaving a blank space where the men’s words, let alone their emotions, were concerned.
The creators of “Elvis & Nixon,” with Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as the president, tried to fill it in.
About four years ago, Joey Sagal, an actor and occasional Elvis impersonator, was visiting producer Cassian Elwes, who had a mug shot of Elvis on his wall. That was no mug shot, Sagal told him, but rather a photo for a badge.
“It’s the craziest story ever,” Elwes recalled, “and then about three days later I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is totally a movie.’ ”
He initially conceived of a short film as a wedding gift for Sagal and his wife then, Hanala. Soon, Elwes’ brother Cary, the actor, had written an opening scene in which an irate Elvis blows away his television with a .45 — yes, it happened — and kept going until he had a feature-length screenplay. (Both Sagals and Cary Elwes are credited as screenwriters.)
“The humorous edge was obvious to anyone who knew the story,” which they steered into “Dr. Strangelove” territory, Cassian Elwes said.
The official documents surrounding the meeting were deliciously surreal, starring Watergate figures who armed the president with narcotics-related talking points and proposed a rock-star led anti-drug campaign called “Get High on Life.”
“If the President wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the Government, Elvis might be a perfect one to start with,” Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s appointments secretary, wrote in a memo to H.R. Haldeman, the chief of staff, who scrawled in the margins, “You must be kidding.” (Those memos, along with Presley’s letter and photographs from the occasion, are housed at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, and can be seen online in the National Archives exhibition “When Nixon Met Elvis.”)
There were also memoirs by those who were in the room, at least part of the time, including “The Day Elvis Met Nixon” by the White House aide Egil Krogh Jr. and “Me and a Guy Named Elvis” by Jerry Schilling, a longtime friend who accompanied the singer on that trip to Washington.
“Actually, that’s part of what was fascinating, that there’s more realness to the script than I presumed when I first read it,” said the director, Liza Johnson.
Eventually the filmmakers consulted Schilling, who was loath to make an on-screen fool of his friend. But as revisions continued, he softened.
“There were things in that script that said a lot about who Elvis was as a human being,” Schilling said.
Before shooting began, he took Shannon to Memphis, Tennessee, where they visited the government project housing where Elvis lived as a child, and privately toured Graceland, “things I’d never shared with anyone else before.”
The resulting portrayal is more essence than impression, enlivened by quirks like Presley’s peculiar laugh, conjured by an actor who only faintly resembles him. (Both Shannon and Spacey channeled their characters without the help of prosthetics.)
The meeting between Presley and Nixon, made public a year later by columnist Jack Anderson, may not be significant as political history, nor did it benefit the president.
“But it’s certainly interesting as cultural history in the sense that it captures a moment of early 1970s America, as the country was so taken with the changes being wrought by the counterculture,” said David Greenberg, the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.”
“Here was Elvis, who used to be such a hero to young people, having aligned himself with the Nixon White House on the side of the squares,” He added.
In a 1990 interview, Nixon recalled Presley’s flamboyance and shyness and took issue with those who criticized his use of drugs, adding without apparent irony that they were prescription and not illegal.
“I think that he was a very sincere and decent man,” the former president concluded.
Presley got what he wanted: a special assistant’s badge, now in Graceland’s archives.
“It was an important moment in his life,” Schilling said. “I’m not sure how much humor he would find in that or not.”